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Iconic texts still missing from e-libraries

A growing number of schools are embracing books in electronic format, but many classic titles that have become staples of the English curriculum still aren’t available as eBooks.

Getting permission to release a book in electronic form can be as hard–or harder–than writing it: It took six years get J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy released in eBook format, more than half as long as Tolkien himself took to write all three books.

"The Tolkien estate wanted to be absolutely confident that eBooks were not something ephemeral," says David Brawn, publishing operations director at HarperCollins U.K., which announced last week that the late British author’s works–among the world’s most popular–would at last be available for downloading.

"We were finally able to convince the Tolkien estate that the eBook is a legitimate, widespread format," Brawn said.

Tolkien’s addition to the e-club fills a major gap, and, with eBooks the fastest (and virtually only) growing sector of publishing, other authors and their estates have softened as well.

Former holdouts Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel have allowed their books to be digitized, and John Grisham will reportedly do the same. Grove/Atlantic Inc., which has published William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, and Malcolm X, expects many of its older works to become available.

"We’re getting less resistance every day," says Grove associate publisher Eric Price.

But you could still build a brilliant collection with the books that remain offline. They include, most notably, the Harry Potter series and countless other favorites: Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22; Lolita and To Kill a Mockingbird; Atlas Shrugged and Things Fall Apart; The Outsiders and Fahrenheit 451.

"eBooks will be increasingly important as schools try to make content more widely available to students," said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan. "It would be unfortunate if some publishers and/or authors resist the move to online content, as it will ultimately limit the access that people have to their materials. It would be about as foolish as a music recording artist resisting iTunes or similar technology."

No eBooks are available from such living authors as Thomas Pynchon, Guenter Grass, and Cynthia Ozick, or from the late Studs Terkel, Roberto Bolano, and Saul Bellow. Only a handful, or less, have come out from Paul Bowles, Hunter S. Thompson, and James Baldwin.

The reasons are legal, financial, technical, and philosophical.

– The author or author’s estate simply refuses, like J.K. Rowling, who has expressed a preference for books on paper and a wariness of technology. And don’t expect to see A Streetcar Named Desire or any other Tennessee Williams play on your eBook reader.

"Right now, his estate is totally opposed to any kind of electronic licensing," said literary agent Georges Borchardt, who represents Williams’ estate. "They just don’t trust the technology."

– The book doesn’t fit the eBook format. Because e-technology has had limited capacity to handle illustrations, paper–recycled paper–was needed to read Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the companion to the Academy-Award winning environmental documentary. Rodale Books hopes to release Gore’s follow up, Our Choice, as an electronic text when the traditional book comes out this fall.

– The author, or the author’s representative, is holding out for more money. Agents complain that eBook royalty rates, commonly 25 percent of net receipts, are far too low and should be doubled, saying that digital texts cost virtually nothing to produce and distribute.

"Publishers get a huge profit, more on eBooks than on anything else," says Timothy Knowlton, CEO of Curtis Brown Ltd., where authors include business writer Jim Collins (whose Good to Great is unavailable as an eBook) and religious scholar Karen Armstrong (whose recent work can be downloaded).

"From my perspective, that’s patently unfair–and it’s going to backfire on the publishers who insist upon it."

Knowlton says that HarperCollins is among those giving 25 percent. Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperMedia, a multimedia group at HarperCollins, did not confirm or deny the number, but said the same rate has been offered since 2001.

"We feel it’s the right royalty, one that allows for growth of the format while still returning to authors a respectable amount of money," Allessi said.

– The author, or author’s estate, is open to eBook rights, but still not convinced that the market is big enough to justify the expense and risk of digitizing a text. Arthur Klebanoff of RosettaBooks, an eBook publisher, remembers numerous attempts to get rights to To Kill a Mockingbird and other older classics, only to encounter skepticism about sales.

"Some of the biggest names are still waiting for the market to prove itself," Klebanoff said.

The digital red tape is especially thick for books issued before the Kindle/Sony Reader era. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a cult favorite published in 1996 by Little, Brown and Co., is finally expected to come out as an eBook. Grove/Atlantic hopes to have an e-version of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, released on paper in 1959, ready for the novel’s 50th anniversary.

"We have to go through every single contract to see which ones have a clause that might pertain to electronic rights and which ones didn’t," says Grove’s Eric Price. "When you’re going through thousands and thousands of contracts, it’s a slow, slow process."

Sometimes, just finding out whether a book has e-rights is a complicated process.

A handful of Jack Kerouac books can be downloaded, including Dharma Bums, Wake Up, and the original manuscript (the "Scroll" edition) of On the Road, but not the edited version of On the Road that is known to millions.

The manager of Kerouac’s literary estate, John Sampas, first said that On the Road was not available as an eBook, because the publisher (Viking) had not asked permission. He then called back and said the book was available, but realized he might have been talking about the "Scroll." Sampas suggested contacting Viking, which said it does have rights to the popular edition, has plans to release it, but has not decided upon a date.

School and library representatives said eBooks are one more way to get students interested in reading–and not having the option of an electronic format for some classic texts would be a shame.

"eBooks are … indicative of the changing school library environment, where multiple formats are needed to meet the needs of a diverse student body," said Ann M. Martin, president of the American Association of School Librarians. "Just like in the past, students need to have choice in materials to read, and currently choice is extending into alternative formats. It is not so much a shame that a print book would [not] be offered in eBook format as much as it would be a shame that students would not have the choice to decide which format they would prefer."


American Association of School Librarians

Note to readers:

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